By Tommy Hough
In a surprise move, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors has opted to reject the long-running Lilac Hills Ranch proposal. Called "unsafe" by Cal Fire San Diego Unit Chief Tony Mecham at today's hearing, and recommended for denial by county staff in a highly unusual move, Lilac Hills was one of our region's most persistent and durable "zombie projects."
Initially denied by county planners in 2009, and at the ballot box with the defeat of Measure B in 2016, Lilac Hills was a loser with the courts, voters, and fire safety professionals. Hopefully the cycle of approving reckless sprawl developments in fire-prone areas is, at last, reaching an end.
My remarks today before the Board of Supervisors follow:
My name is Tommy Hough, I live in Mira Mesa. I'm the V.P. for policy and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action, and I support the staff recommendation to reject the Lilac Hills development.
In 2016 our organization was active in the effort to defeat what was then Measure B, which was the Lilac Hills ballot measure. As you may recall, it was soundly defeated, as residents throughout the county made it clear, as they did again with Newland Sierra on the primary ballot this March, that sprawl development must not be the future of this county, and is not the highest or best use of the rural areas and open space in our county.
We are not Riverside County, and this county should make it a point of pride to resist the temptation to throw open our wildlands, watersheds, and wildlife corridors to sprawl housing developers as has occurred there. If you take a trip north on the 215 to Perris and head east to Hemet, the signs along the road aren't placed by counties or municipalities, but by sprawl housing developers. You know their names. It's clear who holds sway there. It is not a future we should embrace here.
When I ran for San Diego City Council in 2018, I often spoke about our housing crisis, and cited areas within the district I was running in (District 6) where denser housing is a functional option that would require some tweaks to zoning laws, but would enable residents to live within our already-established urbanized footprint, near transit, and the abundant employment centers in our district in Sorrento Valley, Mira Mesa, and Kearny Mesa.
Furthermore, to claim that any of these homes or housing are truly affordable for average San Diegans, is a gross distortion. Unless we're talking about developer-subsidized, or government-subsidized housing, it will NOT be affordable for the majority of working San Diegans. And housing should not be predicated, anywhere, on the false premise that "affordable" housing at the level this area clearly needs can be achieved by setting aside a required percentage of homes that developers can simply buy their way out of. This is to say nothing of the wildfire danger, and significant greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) for new miles traveled to and from manufactured cities in our backcountry like that proposed with Lilac Hills.
It is no longer 1980, and the cycle of approving these reckless developments in fire-prone areas must end. Stop putting citizens in harm's way. There is nothing safe or responsible about this project. Please approve the motion and support the recommendations of staff and county fire in opposition to the Lilac Hills zombie project that was so soundly defeated when it was on the ballot four years ago.
By Tommy Hough
Maxim One: Everything that Trump comes in contact with, good or bad, innocent or guilty, dies an early death in reputation, career, conscience, or lifespan.
Maxim Two: If Trump touches or meddles with anything you love or cherish, like our environment or our democratic heritage or humanity in general, it too will die an early, ugly death (see maxim one).
Maxim Three: Donald Trump is President of the United States, and will continue to inflict maxims one and two on all of us until he is driven from office.
When Ryan Zinke, the most corrupt Secretary of the Interior of our modern era, moved to redraw the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah in 2017, it was an unprecedented act of desecration, and a terrible harbinger for our nation's conservation heritage that will only become more pronounced and destructive should Donald Trump win re-election in November.
Prior to the sheer awfulness of the Trump administration, no president or administration had ever moved, erased, altered, or so violated the set boundaries of parks or monuments, certainly not to facilitate oil and gas interests, thereby undoing the very reason they were established as monuments in the first place: to protect them from environmental destruction and exploitation. Certainly no one has ever even attempted to do so in a manner as transparent and craven as Trump.
But this is an administration that, in three short years, has:
That's a partial list, of course.
Dating back to the administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and even Abraham Lincoln, the idea of erasing the boundaries of protected places was considered cowardly, reckless, needless, and defiant of well-worn American traditions of conservation, however imperfect they may be from time to time.
One of the more notable, and uglier, exceptions to this was the construction of the O'Shaughnessy Dam along the Tuolumne River at Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite National Park, from 1919 to 1923. Abhorrent as it was, it was voted on in broad daylight as an Act of Congress for maximum culpability, and didn't physically alter the boundaries of Yosemite National Park. But there's no doubt the stress of the Hetch Hetchy tragedy is what killed John Muir.
The lesson was crystal clear: Parks and monuments, intended for the benefit of all Americans, are not placeholders until some other project comes along. The resources protected within them are sacrosanct.
Previously, presidents and politicians understood that areas protected for conservation had often been the subject of frequently intense, long-term campaigns by communities and generations of activists. After all, National Parks and National Monuments don't fall out of the clear blue sky. They are established because committed citizens demand these areas be saved. Long before and long after John Muir, careers and lifetimes have been spent to preserve such places.
Notable instances in California include the campaigns to save surviving ancient Redwoods and end old-growth logging on federal public land, the lengthy effort to preserve the Stanislaus River, the decades-long fight to preserve the wildest expanses of the Mojave Desert, and more recently, the campaign to Save Trestles and stop repeated efforts to build a toll road through the backcountry of San Onofre State Beach along the length of San Mateo Creek.
In erasing the intent, meaning, and boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in 2017, the Trump administration deliberately set a terrible, dangerous precedent, and now they're at it in California as oil exploration (!), i.e. the precursor to drilling, begins at Carrizo Plain National Monument along the border of Kern and San Luis Obispo counties, on the southwestern edge of the San Joaquin Valley.
Established by President Bill Clinton in 2001, the monument was intended to preserve the native grasslands of this otherwise unusual depression along the San Andreas Fault in a "land that time forgot" that explodes into extraordinary springtime wildflower shows, and prevent the same kind destruction wrought by the oil extraction that goes on around it for 50 miles in each direction in a network of Chevron and Shell oil and fracking fields, some of which are the size of cities. Now, like other affected National Monuments, Carrizo Plain faces an uncertain future.
Further north in the Central Valley, Giant Sequoia National Monument in Tulare County was similarly put on notice in 2017, and sold out by that county's own board of supervisors, who applauded the move (!) and even asked Trump to shrink the monument. Sickening.
If we hope to preserve our nation's natural heritage and spirit of preservation – to say nothing of the nation itself – then Donald Trump and his destructive anti-leadership must be soundly defeated and driven from office like the environmental and Constitutional criminal he is.
To use an oil and water example, this president and a healthier planet are simply incompatible. As he has demonstrated on far too many occasions when he has turned American against American and neighbor against neighbor, from his Central Park Five accusations to Charlottesville and Lafayette Square, Trump's lifetime of toxic words, deeds, and destructive rhetoric have revealed zero interest or capable curiosity in crafting a more perfect union or bringing our nation together.
Trump is the toxic darkness that seeks to divide, conquer, and pillage. No amount of light or empty riches will ever satisfy his corrupt heart. In any ordinary era, he would've been a disaster. In the midst of actual crises like a pandemic and unchecked foreign interference in our elections, to say nothing of our nation's social reckoning in the wake of George Floyd's murder at the hands of police, Trump is anathema to democratic traditions (see maxim one).
Staring out into the emptiness from the steps of St. John's Church on June 1st, shortly after he and his pack of jackals followed White House security forces that literally gassed and beat the shit out of citizens gathered along the route, waving a Bible around as a cheap prop for all to see, Trump became the living embodiment of Vishnu in his cruelest form. From the Hindu text of the Bhagavad Gita, it was Trump revealing his soulless, blackened heart to our nation and its people: "I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds."
Plenty of us already knew, of course, long before Trump took the oath of office. That toll continues to be played out on our nation, our people, and our future. On refugees jammed into coronavirus-ridden concentration camps, kept in cages on freezing concrete floors. On families willfully and deliberately separated, tossed into the wind for maximum angst and emotional trauma. On black men and women harassed and murdered by police who turn off body cameras and use chemical weapons not even used in warfare.
And on our wild refuges of America, heretofore and hopefully left untouched by today's daily Washington psychodramas. Our long national nightmare of Trump continues.
By Tommy Hough with Andrew Meyer
The landmark Endangered Species Act of 1973 that we celebrate today, and which continues to be the gold standard by which threatened wildlife is preserved, wasn't created in a vacuum.
Rather, it was built upon a pair of previous iterations of endangered species policies from 1966 and 1969, both of which began the process of tying the survival of species facing imminent extinction with curtailing the activity of humans to create room for that species to recover in their natural habitat.
Part of the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966 called upon Congress to begin authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to "acquire land or interests in land that would further the conservation of these species." Coming two years after the passage of the Wilderness Act, which similarly directed an activist Congress to submit wilderness considerations to the Interior Department, this progressive approach was, ideally, to provide a direct route for activists to contact the Interior Department via their congressperson.
In response, the Interior Department issued their inaugural list of endangered species in 1967, including the grizzly bear, alligator, manatee, and bald eagle, whose numbers had become so depleted by the widespread use of DDT, hunting, and habitat loss that by 1963 only 487 nesting pairs of Bald Eagles remained in the U.S.
By 1969, a more global, holistic view on endangered species and the interconnectedness of wildlife and habitats was emerging, and the 1969 Endangered Species Conservation Act included, for the first time, threatened mollusks and crustaceans in addition to charismatic vertebrates. The key legal term "based on the best scientific and commercial data," also made its first appearance in the 1969 bill, ensuring that science would have final word on policy.
By 1972, conservation policy was proving popular with voters, and with 18-year olds having been given the right to vote the year before with the passage of the 26th Amendment, President Richard Nixon was eager to win that demographic for his re-election campaign. Declaring that current endangered species policy was unclear and "inadequate," Nixon called for a comprehensive streamlining of policy, setting into motion what became the Endangered Species Act that was signed into law on December 28, 1973.
Since that time, the Endangered Species Act has facilitated the recovery of species large and small, and became a catalyst in the modern conservation movement as a means of preventing mining or logging operations in areas deemed critical habitat for endangered species.
One of the most notable examples of this was the Northern Spotted Owl of Pacific Northwest old-growth forests, which saw its numbers plummet as clearcutting of ancient forests in Washington, Oregon, and California reached a frenzied peak in the mid-1980s. Marbled Murrelets, a small, football-shaped seabird that lives in the crowns of old-growth Douglas firs and cedars, similarly saw its numbers collapse as timber operations wiped out habitat in areas which some logging interests casually described as biological "dead zones."
Using the ESA in this case, extractive uses became far more regulated, setting a precedent that still applies today – that endangered species should not be wiped off the face of the earth by humanity's actions, however intentional or accidental they may be.
Here in San Diego County, we have the responsibility of living with several ESA-listed species, some of which we shared with you this week. Our San Diego National Wildlife Refuge preserves habitat for endangered birds, our regional Multiple Species Conservation Plan (MSCP) was one of the first of its kind and offers a path forward for effective conservation-focused planning, and in tandem with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, our rare birds and other organisms are continuously receiving critical protection at both the state and federal level because of the Endangered Species Act.
We, and our wild neighbors, benefit from the ESA every single day.
California Least Tern photo by Walker Golder, Texas Audubon
By Tommy Hough
It's a great time to be a polluter.
From the moment Donald Trump assumed office in 2017, his cabal quickly became the most anti-environmental administration in modern U.S. history. It was a surprise to no one.
We expected the worst from Trump, and he's delivered. On election night 2016, at the moment the results were clear and the bourbon was beginning to flow, I sat down and wrote my emergency list of "Conservation Points That Must Be Addressed Prior to Inauguration," like National Monument designations, moves to shore up Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, protection of the Wilderness Act and Antiquities Act, etc.
Boy, was I thinking small.
Trump's team had a game plan, and it was a determined effort to rid every federal agency of every last vestige of competence, fact-based rationale, or anyone who could plausibly say "no," and instead, turn our hallowed insititutions into instruments of lazy absurdity to give credible cover to a radicalized, lawless vision of America in the service of a corrupt banana republic ruling family. They were thinking big, and familiar. The pencilnecks in Washington never saw it coming.
Within days of Trump taking office, the EPA was turned upside down and promoting coal (!) and the benefits of mercury, the hallowed National Park Service was bullied into doctoring inauguration photos, and the Interior Department announced plans to either modify the boundaries or entirely do away with 27 National Monuments, essentially undoing the entire reason National Monuments are established in the first place. Unprecedented you say? Well, the boss said so. Precedent would receive no attention or respect from this administration.
Not that his supporters care. And despite all of Trump's characteristically confused bravado pledging to make America great and revive oil, fracking, and even coal in the face of abundant, rational, and profitable (!) renewable energy opportunities, in the days after the election Trump apologists admonished us that Donald Trump was "an American," wishfully hoped that "nothing will change," and that his administration would follow what Chief Justice John Roberts has called "settled" law.
They've done anything but. Trump's packing of federal courts, and quite possibly, one to two more seats on the Supreme Court should he be reelected, or should a tragedy befall one of the justices between now and January 2021, ensures even more wretched, absurd decisions for decades to come, even if we get lucky and bump Trump and his Republican enablers out of office in November – and assuming they actually leave town in January without tanks in the street.
According to the New York Times, "After three years, the Trump administration has dismantled most major climate and environmental policies." Ever the champion of fossil fuels, Trump has described the countless policies he has done away with as "burdensome" to the fossil fuel industry and other extraction businesses. After all, it's so hard to be a billionaire or a multinational corporation in America.
This breathtaking, ongoing assault on America's environmental heritage includes the undoing of 64 long-standing regulatory policies, with 34 more rollbacks in progress for a total of 98. Presidents from FDR to Obama prided themselves on policy they'd passed. Trump, and his rudderlessly embittered supporters cheer every little thing he tears down. So much for the vision of a guy who made a name for himself building buildings, however tacky they are.
I never imagined Team Trump and their GOP enablers would be able to manage an enforced brain drain and literally gut federal agencies into the ether, but that's what they did. For years Republicans whined that government is inefficient, and government can't possibly be an asset to the citizenry. They were so intent on demonstrating this premise they elected Donald Trump to make sure reality fit the pipe dream. I always figured the cabal would need someone around who had a clue in case of a real emergency. Instead, those few civil servants remaining who have a clue and demonstrate it, like Dr. Anthony Fauci, get death threats from emboldened lunatics instead of thanks.
I never imagined modern, Obama-era agreements to limit poisonous emissions from power plants and ensure more fuel-efficient cars and trucks, all made in conjunction with industry leaders, would be gutted as swiftly as rules pertaining to clean air, water, and toxic chemicals. But of course, failure of imagination is what led to disasters like Pearl Harbor, 9/11, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The era of modern American conservation can be traced past LBJ and FDR to the hearty, workaholic activism of President Theodore Roosevelt on behalf of wilderness and open space, President Benjamin Harrison's creation of the U.S. Forest Reserve system in 1891 to stop the wanton destruction of western forests, and President Abraham Lincoln's donation of Yosemite Valley to the state of California in 1864 for the purpose of establishing a park in the Sierras.
Trump has put an end to that grand tradition of American conservation, of pride in America's natural heritage. This is a man, after all, who stares at eclipses and is visibly uncomfortable outside. Prior to becoming president, the only time Trump spent outdoors was while walking from his limo to the front door of the building he was entering. Like all of his toxic behavior, Trump projects his contempt and disgust for our natural world onto us all.
To be fair, the golden era of American conservation was already a little wobbly by the time James Watt threw a wrench into it in the early 1980s leading the Reagan administration's Interior Department, but the preservation of the Stanislaus River, 1984 Wilderness Act(s), 1994 California Desert Protection Act, 1994 Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP), and 2001 Roadless Rule were still ahead.
The slope became increasingly slippery during the George W. Bush years, and during the Obama administration the lunatic GOP Congress routinely ran rough drafts of today's conservation rollbacks by the White House, knowing full well Obama would veto them. As I said in presentations at that time, they were just getting the wording right and waiting for a Republican administration.
Ultimately, Obama ended up preserving more federal land than any president before him, so Trump inherited a federal preservation system ripe for exploitation and abuse. As the administration quietly closed off 24 million of acres of public land in the Intermountain West for oil and gas exploration, they loudly announced plans to open some two million acres of conservation lands managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with the absurd claim Trump was "expanding" areas for hunting and fishing. Wait, he closed off 24 and gave them two, did you see that? The pencilnecks will never understand.
But that's not the only American tradition Trump has desecrated and jettisoned. Children remain in cages. Families legally seeking asylum remain separated. Concentration camps are a reality in our nation. Cruelty has been empowered. Walls are being built, have been built, bulldozed over cactus and sliced across wilderness and protected habitat. Convicted war criminals and federal criminals are pardoned, murdering racists and actual Nazis are "fine people," while honorable naval officers who put their crew's safety ahead of the president's fragile ego are fired. The post office's effectiveness is a problem for those who believe government should not be.
People of color are humiliated and then murdered in full view of their neighbors while jogging in deadly, outrageous "citizen's arrests," or while doing nothing more suspicious than sleeping in their own beds at night. Children are in cages.
Children are in cages.
Tell your friends, tell your family, especially in the states that matter – vote this November. Don't ever accept what's changed, and what's been done to this nation since January 19, 2017. It is not, and will never be acceptable.
Tommy Hough is the co-founder and original president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action. He currently serves as vice president for policy.
By Tommy Hough and Andrew Meyer
All this week the San Diego Audubon Society has been celebrating Endangered Species Day by highlighting five local birds that benefit from federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections. So far we've featured the Ridgway's Rail, Least Bell's Vireo, and Western Snowy Plover. Today we're highlighting both the Bald and Golden Eagle — and though they may be seldom seen, both are found here in San Diego County.
While the Bald Eagle stands as one of the great success stories of the Endangered Species Act (it was removed from the endangered list in 1995), Golden Eagles haven't been doing as well in San Diego County. In fact, over the last 100 years we've lost more than half of our county's breeding pairs, almost entirely due to sprawl development cutting into and destroying habitat.
Golden Eagles are larger than Bald Eagles, with an average wingspan of five feet, and record wingspans of eight feet or more. They're dark brown with lighter shades on their wingtips, and yellow feathering at the base of the neck. Found throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere, the Golden Eagle is one of the world's most widely distributed eagle species.
As a result of its reasonably stable numbers nationally, the Golden Eagle has never been listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or other federal agency, although it was initially earmarked for protection from commercial trapping and hunting as part of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act in 1940.
Despite this early act of preservation, the Golden Eagle saw its numbers decline by mid-century, but it was the Bald Eagle that had become critically endangered by the early 1970s, in part from the widespread use of the "Silent Spring" pesticide DDT, which weakened the integrity of eggs in dozens of bird species.
In many ways, the Bald Eagle's plight enabled passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 in order to save the nation's symbol from extinction. Since the ESA's implementation, the Golden Eagle has similarly benefitted from measures to preserve Bald Eagle numbers. Today, the survival of these magnificent raptors relies on preserving the ecosystems and open spaces that they rely upon for roaming, hunting and nesting.
Phil Lambert, who manages the San Diego Audubon Society's Silverwood Wildlife Sanctuary near Lakeside, saw a Bald Eagle two weeks ago circling above the sanctuary's observation area. Flying about 100 ft. above the oak canopy while being attacked by a resident Red Tailed Hawk, this Bald Eagle sighting was only the sixth at Silverwood since 2011. Prior to that, Bald Eagles weren't even on Silverwood's bird list.
Human activity in the form of climate change, poisoning, collisions with buildings, aircraft, and windmills remain serious threats to eagles, but none is more severe than urbanization and habitat destruction, and declines in the availability of the species' natural prey.
Help This Bird: Bald Eagles are one of the nation's great recovery stories, and the ESA quickly demonstrated its value in helping to facilitate the bird's survival. But there are things we can do now, even without an endangered classification, to prevent Golden Eagles from being decimated in the same way Bald Eagles were in the mid-20th century.
Take a moment to let the San Diego County Board of Supervisors know you want protections enacted for Golden Eagle nesting sites on county land, and that you support a strong Multiple Species Conservation Program (MSCP) for North County. Today is the last day to do so.
Let your supervisors know you especially support option five in the stakeholder survey that fulfills the county's General Plan goals, makes good on the planning and development that's been undertaken to date, and is the best option for the species covered under the plan, and for habitat connectivity in North County.
Fun Fact: Golden Eagles have the largest territory of any bird species in San Diego County.
By Tommy Hough and Megan Flaherty
This Friday is Endangered Species Day, and this week San Diego Audubon is highlighting five local endangered birds that benefit from protections extended by the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA). In many cases, these endangered birds have seen their numbers rebound and populations saved as the result of the ESA which, unfortunately, has been subject to a number of recent enforcement rollbacks. So far we've featured the Ridgway's Rail, Least Bell's Vireo, and Golden Eagle.
Today, we spotlight one of the most endangered west coast shorebirds, the Western Snowy Plover, a small, six-inch bird with a sand-colored back, white belly, and black beak. Western Snowy Plovers typically nest directly on sandy beaches, and their preferred natural habitats are the flat, open shorelines and dunes of the Pacific coast, as well as the beaches of our local bays, lagoons, and river mouths.
Locally, some of the best places to view the Western Snowy Plover are San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve in Encinitas, along the Silver Strand State Beach south of Coronado, and nearby the Tijuana River. As humans continue to build up to the waterline and further isolate habitat, these scattered areas of preserved beach and upland areas have become even more critical for the survival of this species.
Warmer ocean waters and non-native beach grasses also jeopardize the survival of the Western Snowy Plover, but the primary culprit may be your own two feet, and the beachgoing habits of your neighbors. Nesting season for the Western Snowy Plover corresponds with the height of summer when humans are on the beach, putting these already delicate birds under further stress.
Plovers lay their eggs in shallow depressions with loose sand and little cover. As a result, eggs are naturally threatened by high tides and weather, but it's the impact of humans on the beach walking, running, playing sports, and even driving off-road vehicles that does the most damage. Adult plovers will abandon their nests for lengthy periods if disturbed.
San Diego Audubon has enlisted the help of local students to create plover awareness signs which are posted at the Silver Strand State Beach. Learn more about our Sharing our Shores program here.
Help This Bird: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first listed the Western Snowy Plover as endangered in 1993, and while only about 500 of the birds remain between Los Angeles and the border with Mexico, that number would surely be less without ESA protections. Do your part and clean up trash and beach litter, keep your dogs leashed, and respect fences and signs to help ensure the survival of this little bird.
Fun Fact: Western Snowy Plover nests are called "scrapes." Male plovers press their chest into the sand and use their legs to scrape out a bowl shaped-depression, which are then lined with small pieces of shells, pebbles, kelp, driftwood, and other beach debris.
Western Snowy Plover photo by Mick Thompson, courtesy of Portland Audubon.
By Tommy Hough with Karina Ornelas and Megan Flaherty
With Friday, May 15, marking Endangered Species Day, this week the San Diego Audubon Society is highlighting endangered birds in San Diego County that benefit from the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the resulting protection of habitat. In a number of cases, these endangered birds have seen their numbers rebound and species saved as a result of the ESA, which has regrettably seen a number of enforcement rollbacks over the last three years.
The Bell's Vireo is a songbird found throughout North America, but its Southern California subspecies, known as the Least Bell's Vireo (Vireo bellii pusillus), was listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1986 due to an ongoing loss of habitat in the region, primarily due to development of riparian habitats in canyons and coastal areas.
Least Bell's Vireo are small birds with short, rounded wings and straight, short bills, with a faint ring around their eyes. Their feathers are mostly gray with paler shades of gray running to white along their bellies. Adult species spend their day in small trees and dense shrubs along rivers and streams, relying on a diet of insects and spiders. Beginning in April, female Least Bell's Vireo lay four eggs up to four times per year, with young birds leaving their nest some 10 to 12 days after hatching.
Unfortunately, Least Bell's Vireo nests are typically found within two feet of the ground, which makes unhatched eggs and chicks particularly vulnerable to predation from cats, raccoons, rats, and coyotes, all of which are found near housing and business developments. Scrub jays, hawks, and snakes are also common natural predators.
Although they've been spotted as far north as Santa Clara County, the extraordinarily biodiverse set of habitats and open space in San Diego County remains home to the greatest number of Least Bell’s Vireo. A substantial number of the county’s population lives in the drainages of Camp Pendleton that make up the Santa Margarita River watershed, and the Otay Valley Regional Park offers some of the best, most accessible visibility opportunities. San Diego Audubon is working with the rangers here to improve habitat to benefit riparian species, as well as local pollinators.
Help This Bird: Since its classification as endangered in 1986, the Least Bell's Vireo population has increased from 291 pairs statewide, to 2,968 pairs in Southern California. But the Least Bell's Vireo needs the verdant riparian habitat of canyons and stream beds in coastal areas to survive. The ESA is capable of stopping or requiring modification of proposed developments in order to preserve habitat for this species, which is essential as their population is still so low that they are not safe from extinction.
Please contact your federal elected official and ask them to support conservation policy in Congress to incentivize coastal wetland protection and restoration for carbon storage in order to help the Least Bell's Vireo.
Fun Fact: As songbirds, the Least Bell's Vireo are known to be chatty and melodic, with male birds often signing up to 15 different varieties of song.
Least Bell's Vireo photo by Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
By Tommy Hough
When I was running for San Diego City Council in 2018, I knocked on thousands of doors in District 6.
One afternoon, when I was canvassing in Mira Mesa, I stopped by a house on Gold Coast Drive. When I asked the homeowner if there was anything going on in the neighborhood he was concerned about, he led me by the arm from his front door to his front yard, where we were promptly hit by flying gravel as a car drove by at less than 25 miles per hour. "This is my problem," he told me. He wasn't the first.
If you've driven on Gold Coast east of Camino Ruiz over the last dozen years, this anecdote probably doesn't surprise you. I first drove along Gold Coast some 17 years ago, shortly after I'd arrived in San Diego as part of the inaugural air staff at FM 94/9. Even then I remember remarking on how atrocious the road was – not just with potholes, but with cracks, gaps, bumps, asphalt patches upon patches, and intersections devolving into gravel pits.
I realize it's difficult to find a smooth drive in San Diego. Every neighborhood has their problem streets, but Gold Coast remains a potholed minefield where motorists are forced to drive like a slow-motion skier on a slalom run to avoid the worst parts, especially around the intersections at Westonhill and San Ramon. While not an unusually long stretch of road, it's a heavily-traveled arterial vital to our community and the commuters who drive to and from work in our city's economic engine every day. Gold Coast needs to be rebuilt now, in conjunction with the rebuild of Parkdale Ave. outlined in the city's Community Improvement Program (CIP) number B17188 (you can find other CIPs in District 6 here).
When I attended an informational meeting at the Mira Mesa Senior Center in the summer of 2018 to learn more about the proposal to rebuild Gold Coast Dr. and Parkdale Ave., the city's chief engineer noted with some amazement how bad Gold Coast had become, going so far as to mention his surprise that it hadn't already been rebuilt.
Again, no surprise on our end. Longtime Mira Mesa residents know the roadbed of Gold Coast Dr. and others were built quickly and on the cheap in the early 1970s, and failed long ago from a clear intrusion of water, bad drainage, and loose soils. All of these factors, plus the fact that much of Mira Mesa was rapidly, and unecologically, built upon naturally occurring vernal pools at the time of rapid construction beginning in 1970, have conspired to make Mira Mesa roads notoriously bad. But Gold Coast, one of the most heavily-used arterials in the community, has become the poster child for civic neglect. I made my case on this point in a Times of San Diego piece in February 2019.
I realize the city is looking at a very lean period over the upcoming months, maybe even years, due to the loss of tourism, TOT taxes, and convention revenue from the COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertainty over Proposition B, but it's critical the Capital Improvement Program B-17188 to rebuild Gold Coast Drive from Thanksgiving Lane to Camino Ruiz, and Parkdale Ave. from Mira Mesa Blvd. to Northrup Drive, be funded and moved forward as a priority in the 2021 budget. The decaying streets affect my neighbors' property values, even beyond the flying gravel, and puts extraordinary wear and tear on my neighbors' cars that can cost thousands of dollars a year to stay ahead of.
And it isn't just the residents. MTS buses use the otherwise narrow strip of Gold Coast throughout the day, and in normal times under non-pandemic conditions heavy San Diego Unified school buses deliver students to Salk Elementary School on Parkdale, and Wangenheim Middle School via Gold Coast throughout the school year.
To my earlier point, located as we are between the I-15 and I-805 freeways, our neighborhood streets and arterials like Mira Mesa Blvd., Capricorn, Flanders, Bootes, and Gold Coast bear the brunt of the daily nine-to-five commuter traffic as workers head to and from tech centers like Sorrento Valley and western Mira Mesa. I would ask Mayor Faulconer and San Diego City Council, in this 11th hour ahead of the unveiling of the new fiscal year 2021 budget, that the proposal to rebuild Gold Coast Dr. and Parkdale Ave. be funded and enacted upon, according to the plan for Capital Improvement Program B-17188.
Again, I realize we're in the crosshairs of an impending and likely long-term budget crisis, but hopefully we can address more streets in Mira Mesa and District 6 that need to rebuilt from the ground-up, not slathered over with another layer of asphalt that doesn't fix the underlying problem, like Calle Dario, Jade Coast, Pegasus, Port Royale, Perseus, and others. I'm sure you know of some that could use more than a hug and some TLC. If you agree, do me a favor and please let me know.
By Tommy Hough
I have a layperson interest in seismology, and if I was capable of competently executing math and logarithm formulas, I'm pretty sure I would've been a scientist, perhaps even a geologist or seismologist. But the reality is, as much as I find science fascinating, math has never come easy to me beyond basic arithmetic. I blew the lid off the SATs with my English scores, but my math scores were lurking somewhere near the basement, and I never received much academic encouragement to more fully pursue earth science studies.
Nevertheless, a friend recently asked about a story in the Los Angeles Times detailing how the Garlock Fault in Southern California is experiencing, according to the headline, "unprecedented" movement as the result of the magnitude 6.4 and 7.1 earthquakes near Ridgecrest over the July 4th holiday. My friend also asked whether the Garlock Fault is capable of producing a magnitude 8.0 earthquake, as the newspaper headline indicates. It is, and the L.A. Times story is in fact based on a new study released by Caltech scientists last week.
The Garlock Fault runs east-west across Southern California, essentially from Death Valley National Park at its east end to the Grapevine along I-5 at its west end. The Garlock is unusual because it's an east-west trending fault, and most faults in California tend to run northwest to southeast along larger fault systems like the San Andreas and San Jacinto. Most earthquake faults in San Diego County also follow this alignment.
Geologists have been aware of the Garlock Fault for decades, in part because they see the trace of the fault and the impact it appears to have had on the landscape over time. But there haven't been earthquakes that can be attributed to the Garlock in about 500 years of recorded history, and that includes about 130 years' worth of modern seismology that indicates the fault has simply not been an active geological factor in recent centuries. While the Garlock may have played a role in a magnitude 5.7 earthquake near the town of Mojave in 1992, about two weeks after the big Landers Earthquake to the south near Joshua Tree, no evidence of surface displacement was ever found.
That changed with the magnitude 6.4 quake on July 4th, and the bigger 7.1 quake on July 5th near Ridgecrest. The July 5th quake was the largest to hit California in 20 years, and large earthquakes like those in the Ridgecrest area often have a corresponding effect on other faults. Sometimes nearby faults "loosen up" and move as a result of a big quake, sometimes nearby faults "freeze" and stay locked as the result of a nearby earthquake. Most of the time, nothing happens.
A good way to think of California fault geology is to imagine the state as a big, broken dinner plate that's assembled back together, piece by piece, with a layer of topsoil on it. Some pieces of the broken plate are big chunks while other pieces are small, but they all move relative to one another even when one little piece of the broken plate moves – even a tiny one.
The Garlock Fault runs about 15 miles to the south of Ridgecrest, cutting across U.S. 395 north of Mojave, and when the quakes happened near Ridgecrest this summer many observers initially thought they were on the Garlock. They weren't. Instead, the Ridgecrest quakes were centered in a seismically active area called the Little Lake Fault Zone on a relatively unknown "strike slip" fault, which is a fault that moves horizontally and parallel to a surface fault trace. There are perhaps hundreds of these unmapped faults around the state, some of which may not be visible from the surface. In contrast, it was an undetected "blind thrust" fault, which is a fault at an angle within the earth's crust below the surface, that was the cause of the magnitude 6.4 Northridge Earthquake in L.A. in 1994.
While the Garlock Fault has historically been unaffected by nearby quakes with either an increase or decrease in stress, the Garlock is now moving, albeit very slowly, for the first time in centuries as a result of the Ridgecrest quakes. That movement, as detailed by the Los Angeles Times story, is a big deal in the Earth Sciences world. In seismology, this kind of slow, barely-detectable movement is called "fault creep," or "creeping."
In 1952, a large portion of Kern County and the southern San Joaquin Valley northeast of the Grapevine was hammered by one of the state's most violent earthquakes. It was a big jolt, bigger than the biggest Ridgecrest quake, with a magnitude of 7.3. The quake and its aftershocks killed a dozen people, but that big earthquake happened on an otherwise little fault called the White Wolf Fault. The White Wolf had been identified and mapped prior to the 1952 earthquake, but no one was particularly familiar with it. The White Wolf is also an east-west trending fault, running parallel to the Garlock to the north, and it's located near the western end of the Garlock, where the Garlock meets the San Andreas Fault at the Grapevine near Tejon Pass. Despite the violent shaking and proximity of the White Wolf Fault to the Garlock and San Andreas, the 1952 Kern County Earthquake didn't seem to have any affect on either of those nearby faults.
Meanwhile, this summer's Ridgecrest Earthquake Sequence certainly did affect the Garlock. The depth of the respective quakes may have had something to do with it, another part of the reason the reactivation of the Garlock has become such a compelling story. While a bigger quake 65 years ago did nothing to affect the Garlock, the ones this summer near Ridgecrest rattled it loose. Maybe the Ridgecrest quakes were simply closer to a geologic "sweet spot" for the Garlock where it was "hung up" on rock, perhaps for centuries, and unable to move. Perhaps the Ridgecrest sequences avoided a more destructive quake. Perhaps some other geologic event has now been set in motion.
If you're interested in further layperson reading, there's a seismologist named Susan Hough (a very nice person but no relation) who works at the U.S. Geological Survey. She published a book in 2004 called Finding Fault in California: An Earthquake Tourist's Guide, and it's a handy book to have in the car on road trips or even if you're just driving around L.A., as it points out all kinds of interesting seismic features in the state, some of which you can hike or drive right up to and see for yourself.
Tejon Pass / Grapevine photo by Tommy Hough
Ridgecrest Earthquake photos courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey
"Your feet, taking one step at a time at a studiously slow pace, know the land better than the heads of any elected officials. Insert into those heads what your feet know." – Harvey Manning
By Tommy Hough
If you've been to the Del Mar Mesa Preserve, if you've felt the breeze on your face and seen the expansive views from the mesa tops, you can understand why someone would want to build something there. Even an office park. That desirability is, in part, why the city wisely made the area off limits to development, and instead made it part of its natural preserve system.
That preservation is something the city of San Diego should be proud of. That someone had the humility to say no. That someone had the humility to say the wildflowers bloom and the winds blow and the birds sing here. Any time humanity is capable of putting the brakes on development, of pouring less concrete, less asphalt, from adding more rebar into this world, the nervous systems of all living things win.
So while I'm dismayed at the volume of development that continues along the south side of State Route 56, I'm particularly unhappy with the council's vote to approve the construction of a 420,000 square foot office park on an inward facing "notch" surrounded on three sides by city and state land of the Del Mar Mesa Preserve, much further to the south than any of the other development that has regrettably occurred along the south side of the 56.
Cisterra Development bought this 11-acre parcel on the east side of the preserve from the Catholic church. It was never intended or envisioned to be an employment center. A visit to the site will impress upon anyone why this development is in the entirely wrong place. With a little bit of leadership and foresight, this area could have been incorporated into the city's mitigation matrix in its current state. Now, it will be flattened by bulldozers and earth movers.
In between wild, rudderless claims from opponents that made it sound as though our coalition was made up of gated community fanatics opposing an affordable housing proposal, proponents of the project noted that it is not being built on the preserve itself. But only a fool would deny that the construction alongside the preserve, and the daily volume of thousands of cars going in and out of the area, will not have a detrimental effect on the preserve. It certainly does not compliment the site, or the area.
This project will result in a loss of habitat that will directly affect the preserve and its role as a wildlife corridor, enable an increase in invasive species, and further "bite" into the vanishing wildlands in our city. The construction and daily use of multi-story structures, including a five-story parking garage, is no match for a few trees serving as "natural barriers" between it and the preserve. The very proposal of this office park is an affront to reasonable obligations of stewardship. It is needless.
Yes, the view from the office park will be tremendous – a view of preserved, public land. The location and proximity to preserved public land, in fact, is what will give this office park its "added value." But consider the view from within the preserve, or to wildlife having more obstacles to navigate to access what is becoming an even more isolated island of conservation.
And allow me to add an additional consideration for those who may feel the only thing affected by the project's approval is the "notch" surrounded by conservation lands, instead of the preserve itself: The preserve is already being impacted by surrounding development, and like all islands of conservation, is experiencing death by many thousands of cuts.
If you go to into the canyon of the Del Mar Mesa Preserve, you can look right up to the mesa where this office park will be built. Within the canyon itself, you're in some of the oldest surviving coastal woodlands remaining in our city. The tangle is thick and remarkable. It feels primeval. Humans are only visitors here.
At the base of the canyon is a creekbed. If you go there, even today, it is likely flowing. And while flowing water in a place as notoriously dry as San Diego is typically welcome, the water flowing there today isn't natural drainage from a spring or snowmelt in higher elevations, but runoff from the watering of yards. Runoff from other office developments. It is, in fact, an artificial creek of treated water running through one of the wildest remaining areas in the city, carrying with it chemicals, toxins, detergents, bug and rodent repellants, fertilizers, and poisons, all through a largely pristine site. That's a shame. And that has an effect.
And this office park won't be the punctuation mark at the end of the sentence. It's the beginning of more bites into these wildlands, like the Meridian office project, and Merge 56, which at least has the passable benefit of being "mixed use."
Everyone agrees we have a housing crisis in this city. I spoke about this crisis non-stop on my campaign for District 6 last year. If there are ways to add to our housing stock in sensible places so people who work for a living can afford a home, in which developers work at the public's discretion, and which won't be lost to short term vacation rentals (STVRs) in the process, environmentalists like me will applaud it. We'll support it. We'll help get the project labor agreements, or PLAs, to build it.
But this isn't even about housing. It's office space. As others testified on Monday, we have an abundance of brand new, vacant office space along the 56 corridor, and even more vacant, but perhaps less sexy office space in Kearny Mesa and Miramar. At those locales, the concrete has already been poured within our current development footprint. The roads, water, sewer lines and electricity are all there.
As I said before council in my testimony, voting against this should not have been a difficult decision. The area along the Del Mar Mesa Preserve, where Cisterra's cruelly-named "Preserve at Torrey Highlands" will be built, was not only never intended as an employment center, but was considered so critical for mitigation that even the 56 freeway was routed around it in the early 2000s. No one was going to be put out if a project of this size along a city-owned preserve wasn't approved. In fact, it turns out the Sierra Club had been communicating with the developer about another potential area for the site at the Rose Canyon Operations Yard on Morena Blvd.
But apparently, that option would've been just too hard for the developer, though they admitted they were "intrigued." It would've taken too much time. It wasn't worth the cost of doing business to do the painful work with the city, or anyone else, to get it right. Instead of building an office park in an area that would've been a clear asset by being near the new Balboa Ave. station for the San Diego Trolley, along an established business corridor, and out of a wildfire zone, Cisterra opted to make no one happy by ignoring the opposition of neighbors and the more than justified environmental concerns.
Some developers may balk at the idea of being dictated to over the concerns I've listed. They may balk – and then they may then know how the rest of us feel when being dictated to by them. I said throughout my campaign we need the expertise and capability of developers. They need a seat at the table. But we, the citizenry, must wrest control of our of future, and our city, from the hands of developers who have run the table on this town for decades, and who will shapeshift into whatever form they need in order to work with whatever the prevailing civic trends are.
I applaud Council President Georgette Gómez (D-9), Council President Pro Tem Barbara Bry (D-1), and Councilmember Monica Montgomery (D-4) for having the courage to vote against this project. They should be praised for doing so, and they should be abundantly thanked. Please take a moment to extend your thanks to them.
So now the developer's "preserve" will be built at the people's preserve, with the size and scope of a small airport – an obscene affront in the face of one of the city's most revered conservation areas.
Where humility once reigned and someone once had the foresight to say no, when there was an opportunity to consider building the project somewhere else, the Orwellian "Preserve at Torrey Highlands" will be a legacy of this council. Looming over the Del Mar Mesa Preserve, it will stand as a monument to business as usual, bad planning, bad decision-making, bad faith, smashed coalitions, a dismissal of the obligation of stewardship, and a willingness to desecrate what those before us worked so hard to preserve.
It will be another San Diego environmental cautionary tale, all the more bitter in the face of the 6-3 Democratic majority on city council that approved it. It will be something we look at, 10 or 20 years from now, and shake our heads at in disgust.
Tommy Hough is the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action. He and his wife live in Mira Mesa.
A San Diego broadcast and media personality, Tommy Hough is a wilderness and conservation advocate, communications professional, California Democratic Party delegate, and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action. He ran as the endorsed Democratic candidate for San Diego City Council in District 6 in 2018.